Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal
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Eight years ago, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brother brought the Western genre to crackling life between the pages of an amusing and grippingly violent book. It was odd, surprising and driven by two strange characters – and after winning a brace of awards (and being shortlisted by the Man Booker Prize), it was no surprise to find that the rights had been optioned for a movie adaptation. Now, it blasts onto our screens, with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous siblings, and they turn a barn-storming read into a highly entertaining piece of cinema.
Like the book, though, this is no normal Western. The movie marks the English-language debut of Jacques Audiard, and he brings his lyrical eye to the genre: the opening shootout takes place in a sumptuously black nighttime, with vivid flashes of gunpowder the only source of illumination. Doing the shooting? Eli and Charlie Sisters, two assassins hired by their boss, The Commodore, to take out Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). The reason is a wonderfully offbeat one, which takes the story down an enjoyable unusual path, but the intrigue of the story stems less from plot twists and discoveries and more from the mystery that is humanity.
The Sisters Brothers are psychopaths for hire, with Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) resigned to a life of killing folk they encounter, but Eli (John C. Reilly) is curious about the more positive opportunities life has to offer, and even – shock, horror – the possibility of valuing life in general. Eli’s simplistic take on existence narrated the novel, and Reilly’s likeable, innocent charm is the perfect conduit to bring it to the screen, contrasted to darkly comic effect with Phoenix’s grizzled presence. While Charlie’s undoubtedly tougher and in charge, he’s no more mature, saddled by a drinking problem that Phoenix plays with a seething anger but without indulging in double measures.
The always-excellent Riz Ahmed makes for an optimistic, enthusiastic addition to the ensemble – you can believe that his character’s middle name is “Kermit” – and cuts a warm figure against the ruthless backdrop of 1850s Oregon, a place where toothbrushes have only just come into circulation. Jake Gyllenhaal echoes that upbeat humour as John Morris, an ambitious detective tasked with handing Hermann over to the Sisters, and it’s seeing these differing world views collide that makes The Sisters Brothers such a fun watch – a snapshot of America’s imaginative future and uneducated past at crossed points with each other, a portrait of very male melancholy, and a funny ride through cinematic roads less travelled.